Aikido and Cultural Competency

In my graduate counseling training program there has been some good, thorough, and explicit inclusion of cultural and diversity concerns in the training. In a nutshell, we as counselors should do our best to be aware of our own presumptions and the lens through which we see the world, particularly in regard to the clients’ different backgrounds and accordingly sensibilities.

In aikido, often according to organizational divisions but not always there are different values, priorities, and worldviews. Similar to race and culture, as race is not a very dependable indicator, organizational lines are not necessarily substantive. In any case, I’ve spent significant time in three of these “lands” and had a fair degree of exposure to three others.

As with any cultural competency, the dilemma is to notice and acknowledge one’s own presumptions. However it’s often extraordinarily difficult to imagine any other way of thinking, seeing, or doing things – even on those occasions when we can imagine, we often feel that it is bizarre, nonsensical, unpalatable, and easy to dismiss. The most obvious , yet still difficult, countermeasure is to look at one’s own culture with the same discriminating eye.

In Aikikai Hombu-land, I believe that it is explicitly acknowledged that both parties in the practice, uke and nage, strive to match each other and thereby cultivate a character that is “harmonious”, attentive, giving and engaged, and nurturing. Even with a cooperative partner, there is an inherent discrepancy with another being, as well there are always internal disturbances or imperfections for the practitioner to work on. Explicitly disregarded (often somewhat defensively, including by rationalization) are the practical aspects with unknowing or uncooperative partners. While many of the rationales are valid, I think that one of the overlooked questions is, what would aikido actually look like, even if it didn’t resemble a recognizable form, if a practitioner was able to harmonize with an opponent? I think that there is some neurotic avoidance of this kind of question because it brings the person and ability of O Sensei into the conversation, as well as most people’s total lack of grasp of his level of doing things.

Hombu’s implicit action has been to take the opposite direction, the direction of inclusion. Instead of being preoccupied with interacting with uncooperative people and situations, let’s cultivate within us the quality of harmonizing and being able to tolerate or persevering through disharmonious situations. Inclusion means more people doing aikido, and thereby increasing the qualities of harmonizing and perseverance in the world. I myself do believe in this way that aikido can benefit the world, as well as the possibility of one’s ability increasing in such a way that one can be a very worthwhile partner to work with without necessarily trying to oppose, deviate from, or otherwise create difficulty for one’s partner. I think that the tunnel vision here begins with a limited view that, even with a cooperative partner, there can be more harmony achieved, and that striving to achieve it constitutes the practice – no more is needed or possible. This view fails to see that what is being neglected is the ability to achieve harmony with someone or something that is completely off or disconnected. Concretely, what we see then is little or no distinction being consciously made between practice content, i.e., techniques, in which we are more or less dependent on our partner’s cooperation, and certain conflicts and degrees of conflict.  Even more specifically, the reliance on a cooperative partner presumes a certain level of connection while a uncooperative or unknowing partner presumes very little connection. While there seems to be an explicit disregarding of certain aspects or possibilities, the rationale for doing so is vague and self-fulfilling, and there is little examination of the ramifications of failing to see all the angles.

On a personal note, my exposure to Saotome sensei and more recently (perhaps as a catalyst) Ushiro sensei has shown me that there is actually a “next step” that “normal” practice should be leading to. I feel that Aikikai’s promoting of “normal” aikido snuffs out the possibility of the next step even being considered. The reasons for doing so are to preserve and institution and the resulting good that the institution does in the world, and the rarity/inconspicuousness of people exemplifying the “next step”. Ironically, not considering certain questions and not having a seeking-out kind of attitude with respect to those rare examples creates an air of exclusion.

The second “land” I’ve “resided” in I don’t think I am even inclined to devote much attention to here. In this land there is not only a whimsical and idiosyncratic attitude with respect to the practical aspects, there is a neglect of the precision and attentiveness that I think is Aikikai’s strong suit.

The third “land” is ASU-land. I think it’s somewhat well-recognized that the priorities of this group are the practical aspects of aikido with some neglect of the precision and attention to tradition and form. At best, there is emphasis on form i.e., the “hard” aspects, but a struggle to link them or otherwise realize the relevance to the practical aspects i.e., the “soft” aspects. Unfortunately, emphasis on the practical aspects is perceived by most people to be on the “hard”, mundane, physical level, as opposed to being “aiki”. For one thing, to confuse this perception with “aiki” or “aikido” is unfortunate, but since most people are not even capable of perceiving the mistake, let alone endeavoring to reconcile it, it makes for the preserving of neurosis and fear e.g., “What if the attacker does this, what if they do that?”.

Furthermore, with respect to both the mundane and the “aiki” understanding, the pursuit of either requires quite a bit of the individual practitioner. However the reality is that most people are not up to the task and therefore they co-opt and subvert “aikido” to fit their own way and level of doing it. For most people, if they so want to identify themselves as doing aikido, then they should practice Aikikai Hombu aikido and perhaps take on the still-substantial question of, “What if my opponent opposes me more? Can I imagine an opponent who is more opposing than my current/previous one?”.

One of the blind spots of ASU-land is the same as many other lands, only here it is often mistakenly considered accounted for by the practical emphasis. “By this format of practice i.e., pre-determined forms and roles, what are we able to practice and what are we taking for granted? What doors are opening and why are those doors important?” (This is another one of those questions Endo sensei has posed which I myself find central.) Another way to phrase the overlooked question is, “I am asking you to grab in this particular way so that I can study this particular thing.” We all need to start on the mundane level, but we remain trapped on it, and we usually have limiting definitions of “particular thing” such as “throwing you down” or “practicing relaxation or centering in the face of some stressor”. This is understandable since it is usually a huge gap between the mundane and “aiki”. However it should at least be a gap that is recognized and acknowledged, at least by those in positions of responsibility.


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